Alex Black, Champion Ploughman




The passage that follows, a brief and entertaining summary of the discerning and passionate pursuit of the fine art of ploughing, to that state of perfection that is worldly attainable, is taken from the book “The Career of Alex L. Black: Champion Ploughman”, written by the legend himself, and can be numbered among those rare and reassuring instances where astonishing accomplishments surely reflect a sterling nature within.






My Ploughing Match Career

written by Alex L. Black



In 1903, my parents, Neil and Jennie May Black, purchased a farm in Puslinch Township, on the Downey Road, just south of Guelph, Ontario.  My oldest brother, Harold, was four years old at that time.  I was the youngest of four children.  My brother, Lennie, my sister, Elizabeth, and I were born on this farm, which is now owned by Stan and Irene Snyder.


In 1920, our family moved to the Arkell community, where they bought the farm of Peter Iles.  It is presently owned by Lawrence and Betty Jefferson and Sons.  As a matter of interest, a ploughing match was held on this farm in 1850, when it was owned by John Oulton.


Like most farm boys of my generation, I was taught at an early age of the necessity of work.  After returning home from school at 4 o’ clock, there were the usual chores to do.  So, when my father decided to teach me how to plough, which I found to be hard work, it was just something else that I had to do.  Despite the work on the farm, I had a happy childhood, and a loving, supportive family.  I liked farm life and farmed until 1953, when ill health forced me to retire.  From the time I learned to plough and began entering ploughing matches, my interest has never failed.


  The following pages tell of my ploughing match career and some of my experiences at the early township matches from 1925 to 1947, when I finished competing.  Also included is a summary of my work with the various ploughing organizations.






In 1924, my father attended the Puslinch Township Ploughing Match, held on the farm of Jack McNulty, on Brock Road, near Hamilton’s Corners, south of Guelph.  At that time, I went to school in Arkell, and it had closed in the afternoon to let us all go to the ploughing match.  My father was disappointed in the quality of ploughing in the “Boys’ class ─ under 16 years of age”, and that night at supper he said to me, “If you will plough next year, I will buy you a new Tolton plough”.  At 13 years of age, ploughing was not much on my mind, but in those days, when your parents wanted you to do something, you did it without questioning.


The following year, 1925, my father taught me how to plough with the new Tolton plough.  The handles had to be lowered in order for me to hold the plough properly.  A wheel was attached under the front part of the beam to help control the depth of the furrow, so that I only had to guide the furrow width.  I was not very big or strong for my age and found it to be very hard work.


After four, on school nights and on Saturdays, for about three weeks before the ploughing match, I had to practise.  My father was with me most of the time, teaching me how to plough and helping me.  He didn’t have any ploughing match experience, so we learned by trial and error.


At that time, my father raised purebred Clydesdale horses and won many prizes with them at Fall Fairs.  He had a matched team of mares, five and six years old, that I was to plough with at the match.  There was also a prize for the best plough team and equipment, so I had to help clean the harness and polish the brass buckles and rings in preparation for my first ploughing match.








Jessie and Bessie, 1925,

the team of Clydesdales used at my first ploughing match,

my cousin, Douglas Cockburn, in the wagon.








On October 21st 1925, the ploughing match was held on the farm of Tom Doyle, R.R. No. 6, Guelph, in the Township of Puslinch.  The farm is now owned by Cox Construction and presently operated for the extraction of gravel.  I was entered in the class for “Boys under 16 years of age”.  The entry fee was $1.00.  I don’t remember how many were in the class; I think about four or five.  When it was over, I had won 1st prize for the “best ploughed land”, the “best crown”, which consisted of the first six furrows, the “best finish”, which consisted of the last four furrows, and “sole furrow”, plus the best plough team and equipment.  The first prize was $8.00 and a Silver Cup, donated by Reinhart’s Garage, of Guelph.  For the best crown and finish, the prize was $1.00 for each, and for the best team and equipment, $5.00 was received.


Naturally, I was happy with the results and my father was delighted, to say the least, and was very proud of me.  He had accomplished what he had set out to do, that was to show that a better quality of ploughing could be done, and he had taught me how to do it right. 


He made it clear to me that there was going to be no stopping now.  So, a few days later, we went to the Eramosa Ploughing Match, held on the farm of Tom Forsyth, near Rockwood, about twelve miles from our place.  We drove with the team and wagon.  After the match, we drove home in the dark.  There, I won second prize, and learned the basic lesson of all competitions, you can’t always be first and must be prepared to accept defeat. 


That was the end of my first year of ploughing competitions, but the beginning of the road that would eventually lead me to the Provincial Championship ten years later.






In 1926, my father bought a Dodge Touring car.  That autumn, father and mother, Elizabeth, Lennie, and I travelled to Lundy’s Lane, near Niagara Falls, to see the International Ploughing Match.  Father wanted to learn more about competition ploughing.


That same year, I ploughed at the Puslinch, Eramosa, Peel, and North Dumfries Ploughing Matches, and I had my first experience of using a strange team of horses every day, and of ploughing in the clay soil of Peel County.  The Peel match was held near the village of Malton.  We had gone through a wet spell and at one end of my land the water was running down the furrow behind me.  Not being used to the heavy clay soil, I ploughed too deep and created more problems.  We were learning by trial and error, but I still managed to get second prize.


Perhaps, at this point, I should explain something about the ploughing matches of this era.  Since the early 1800’s they have been a popular agricultural event in Ontario.  They were always held either in the month of October or in the first week in November.  Some ploughing matches held a banquet in the evening, where the prizes were awarded.  At times, we had a long, late drive home, as it would be 10 or 11 o’ clock when we reached the farm.


After receiving the prize list, mailed by the Secretary of the match, I’d reply that I would be attending their events and would require a team of horses.  The farmers in the district brought their teams to the match site.  There would be occasions when the Ploughing Match Committee would allot a team to each competitor.  At other times, the teams were in a special area and you could choose your own.


The touring cars of those days had what we called running boards on each side, about 10 inches wide, that ran between the front and back fenders.  We would set the plough there and tie it securely for the trip.







My brother, Lennie, drove the car and coached me at the matches.  Sometimes my father would accompany us.  When we arrived at the site, I reported to the Secretary and entered the Class that I was to plough in, paid the $1.00 fee, and an additional $1.00 for the use of a team.  The Lot numbers of the lands to be ploughed were put into a hat, and then we all drew a number.


I should say here that I would spend a week to ten days practising at home before I went to the ploughing matches in the fall.


In 1927, I added Waterloo and Halton Counties to the number of ploughing matches that I attended, which amounted to six in all.  Later, I would plough at ten or eleven matches every year.


In 1928, I ploughed at my first International Ploughing Match.  It was held on the Carmichael farm, north of London.  I won 2nd prize in Boys’ Class, under 18 years of age.


The year 1929 brought new experiences.  The International Ploughing Match was held on the jail farm, adjoining the City of Kingston, from October 14th to the 17th.  With the plough tied on the running board of the Dodge car, and my brother Lennie driving, we would set out early in the morning.  It would take us a day’s travel, as the speed limit was only thirty miles per hour, and there wasn’t a bypass around Toronto in those days.  We travelled to Bloor Street and out Danforth Avenue onto Highway No. 2, which we followed all the way to Kingston, arriving at about 4:30 p.m.






As we had not made accommodation arrangements, we parked the car in a field adjoining the tented city.  Then, we put up a tent alongside and slept in the car.  We cooked our own breakfast on a camp stove.  It was very cold and there was ice on the water pail every morning.  We got a lunch in the field where I ploughed and a hot meal from a booth in the evening.  The trip home on Saturday didn’t seem to take as long, as I had done very well at the ploughing match.


The years 1930 through 1934 were difficult and discouraging years, for I had to plough in the Open Classes, against the best ploughmen in the province.  As a result, I didn’t win many 1st prizes.  The ruling was that when a person won 1st prize in the Second Class, they could not plough in that class again.  As I had won 1st prize in the Second Class at most of the matches that I had attended, I had to move on to compete in the First Class.  At the same time, my Tolton plough was not performing as well as the Paris plough, which the best ploughmen were using.


The year 1934 was particularly discouraging, for my mother passed away suddenly in August.  I didn’t want to compete in the ploughing matches, but the family encouraged me to carry on and do my best.


Also, that same year, the Fleury Plough Company, of Aurora, made a new plough and wanted me to use it.  After giving it a try, I bought one, as it performed much better than the Tolton plough that I was using.  I competed with the Fleury plough in 1935 and won the Championship at the International Ploughing Match, held near Caledonia.  The plough did a great job and was just what I needed to put me on an equal footing with the best of ploughmen.  It also showed the importance of good equipment, and from that point on, it was easier to compete.


I had finally reached the top, which everyone in any competition strives to do.  Naturally, there was great joy in our house.  The neighbours in the community held a party in my honour at the Arkell Schoolhouse.








Alex L. Black



Above photo was taken in 1929, with the following trophies:


Silver flatware service, T. Eaton Company, Special Award, won at Kingston, at age 19, for best ploughed land in stubble, 1929.


Left front cup:

Reinhart’s Garage trophy, 1925.


Left centre cup:

Robt. Simpson Co., trophy for best ploughed land, at Lincoln County, 1928.


Left back cup:

Massey Harris cup for the best ploughed land of the Kingston Match, 1929.


Right front:

Puslinch Cup, had to be won three times before you could keep it.  Won in 1928, 1929, and 1930.


Right back cup:

Galt Kiwanis Club Award, 1926.





In 1936, I again won the Championship at the International Ploughing Match, at Cornwall.  A salesman from the Fleury Company provided me and my plough with transportation the week before the match.  I stayed at a farm and used their team of horses.  This gave me the opportunity to have a good practice in the soil of the area and to get used to the horses.


At the end of the year, I had ploughed at over one hundred ploughing matches, and was the only person from Wellington County to travel around the province to compete in as many matches.


The competition was always very keen.  There were a lot of good ploughmen in Peel and York Counties, as well as in Waterloo and Oxford.


The entries averaged from five to fifteen every day, and as many as thirty or more at the International Ploughing Match.


Each ploughman would plough six rounds, and then all would turn the same way and finish the remainder of the land.


The size of the lands that we ploughed were twenty-three feet wide, and approximately twenty rods long, depending on the length of the field.  We had five hours to plough it.  At East York, they were very strict.  If you were not off your land in the allotted time, you were disqualified.  Others were more flexible.


Considerable skill was required.  It was common practice to plough some furrows one quarter to half an inch wider or narrower when making “The Finish”.  We ploughed nine inches wide until we were nearing “The Finish”, then we ploughed narrower and shallower.  Our depth averaged six inches, but less in clay soil, and deeper in sandy soil.






The prizes in those days were paid in cash and goods.  At township matches, the first prize was $7.00 or $8.00, about half of which was in cash.  The second through fifth prizes were lesser amounts, with fifth being about $3.00, for horse ploughing.  At county matches, the first prize was $10.00 to $15.00, in cash and goods, with lesser amounts all the way down to 7th or 8th prize.  “Best Crown” and “Best Finish” were $1.00 each.  The “Best Ploughed Land” usually earned the “Silver Cup”.


In 1935, when I won the Championship, the prize was a large silver tea set, no cash.


Over the years, I collected quite a variety of goods, such as ploughs, scufflers, luggage, blankets, shoes, tools, silverware, et cetera.  I sold what I didn’t wish to keep.


The prizes for tractor ploughing ranged from $15.00 to $20.00, the first prize in cash and goods, often with five gallons of motor oil included.


Halton County purchased a Silver Cup in 1917, to be awarded for the “Best Ploughed Land” at their match.  It had to be won twice before you could keep it.  I won it in 1931 and 1935.  As it was of unique design and very old, I gave it back to them recently, to put in their museum.






One of the most difficult and hardest days that I ever had at a ploughing match was in 1935, at the King and Vaughan Counties Match.  It was on October 31st, a cold, windy day, with snow flurries falling as we drove.  While approaching Georgetown, the fan on the car came loose and damaged the radiator.  It was repaired, but by the time that I got to the ploughing match site, all the entries had been drawn and the ploughmen were started.  The ploughing match officials thought that I wasn’t coming and gave the team of horses that I was to use, to someone else.  The only team left was an old horse and a western horse, which I don’t think had ever seen a plough.  There was land for me to plough at the end of the class, close to the fence, where the sod was much thicker.  This turned out to be to my advantage, and was the only bit of luck that I had all day.


The western horse was very unruly, and pulled the plough by himself most of the time.  He was constantly moving in or out on the land, which made it difficult to hold the plough straight.  By the time that I had finished, my hands and arms were aching so much so that I could hardly hold the plough.  To finish, I had to lean over and get the handles under my armpits in order to hang onto it.  To make it more difficult, the man ploughing next to me was very slow.  After ploughing my six rounds, I had to wait two hours until he completed his six, before I could finish my land.  While waiting in the cold, I got chilled, and spent the next two days in bed.  Even though I had won first prize, it was a costly day and a hard-earned prize.


My experiences in those days were many and varied.  There were days when you ploughed in the rain or wet snow.  Other days, you had to contend with a very poor team of horses.  Sometimes the horses would tramp the ploughing, leaving holes in the furrow, or your lot of land would have old furrows in it.  You would also come up against a variance in the land from one side of the class to the other.  In some ways, it was not always a fair competition, and judges would not make allowances for anything.






There were often large numbers of spectators at the ploughing matches, largely farmers.  At the North Dumfries Match, the Galt Kiwanis Club would go for dinner, and then spend the afternoon around the field, trying to pick the winners.  Sometimes, there would be such a crowd of men at the end of my land that they would have to part to let me drive through and then they would close in behind me.


Once, at the East York Match, the members of the Toronto Kiwanis Club were present.  They put the Lot numbers of my ploughing class in a hat and each paid twenty-five cents to draw a number as to which ploughman was going to win first prize.  Then they spent the afternoon cheering on the ploughman with their number.  They didn’t know anything about ploughing, but they sure had a lot of fun.


During these years, I received a great deal of publicity from the press, which was gratifying, but it took a bit of getting used to.  I have many newspaper clippings in a scrapbook.


In January 1937, I got a surprise and a thrill, when I received a letter from Alex Brown, Champion Ploughman of New Zealand, with his picture, taken with his trophies.  He had read in the newspaper that I had won the championship at the International Ploughing Match, at Cornwall, in 1936, and decided to write to me.  He wrote that they held their ploughing matches from June until August, in different districts, with about fifty-five ploughmen in seven classes.  I replied to his letter and sent him my pictures and information about our ploughing matches, but I have not heard from him again.  In those days, it was a thrill to know that my name and accomplishments had been read about in a country so far away.






Having won the top honours for two years in succession and having continuous success at the local matches, there didn’t seem to be the same interest for me to continue.  So I decided that, rather than quit altogether, I would try tractor ploughing.


My first tractor plough cost me $133.00.  I transported it in a small trailer behind the Dodge car.  I made arrangements to borrow a tractor wherever I was competing.  At that time, we did not own a tractor on our farm, but the Massey Harris Company agreed to loan me a tractor for a month, that fall, if I bought their plough.


Ploughing with a tractor was quite different than with horses.  You had two furrows to contend with instead of one.  It took me some time to drive the tractor straight and learn how to set the plough properly, but it was not as hard on you personally.


When I began tractor ploughing in 1937, I didn’t have to compete in the “Open Tractor Class”.  That gave me a chance to gain some experience.  After that, I ploughed in the Open Class, using a two-furrow plough, ploughing ten inches wide.


The years 1938-39 continued to be a time of learning.  We had purchased a tractor for the farm, and I had ploughed at twenty-one matches and gained a lot of experience.  By the next year, things seemed to fall into place.


In 1940, the International Ploughing Match was held in Elgin County, south of St. Thomas.  I ploughed for two days with the two-furrow plough and for one day with three furrows.  I won First Prize in each class, and the Championship of the match.  I had reached the top in tractor ploughing.






I had a very terrifying experience at that 1940 International Ploughing Match.  As was the custom, contestants were given a box lunch at noon.  I ate part of it and left two sandwiches, wrapped in wax paper, on the tractor platform.  It was a warm day and after I finished ploughing, I ate the last of the sandwiches, not realizing that they had spoiled.  I soon became very sick.  Everything went black and I could not see and could hardly speak.  Only a few people were left in the field.  Finally, the last two people in the field, Paul Armstrong, and his son, Paul, came along.  They knew me and got me into their car and took me to the Massey Harris tent, to my brother, Lennie, and brought help.  If it had not been for them, I would have been in the field for some time before being missed.  Who knows what would have happened, as I was suffering from food poisoning.


Following this match, the Ontario Ploughmen’s Association had arranged for me to attend the National Ploughing Match, near Davenport, Iowa, U.S.A.  It turned out to be a frustrating experience, for no one had arranged to have a tractor and plough set aside for me.  We arrived late in the afternoon, and the match was the next morning.  Fifteen minutes before starting time, the International Harvester agent brought along a new tractor and plough that had never been used, the paint still on the mouldboard.  I had no choice but to use it.  There were sixteen in the class.  I was lucky and won Fifth Prize.  I travelled with Jack Carroll and Clark Young, of the Ploughmen’s Association, and they paid my expenses.


In 1941, the International Ploughing Match was held near Peterborough, Ontario.  I won the Championship for the second time.


Ploughing matches were then discontinued until after the Second World War.






The year 1946 saw the International Ploughing Match start up again when it was held near Goderich.  The Imperial Oil Company, “Esso”, gave an all-expenses-paid trip to Britain for the two best tractor ploughmen as a prize in the Open Class.  I was the runner-up.  The Salada Tea Company gave the same prize for the two best horse ploughmen.  We left Toronto on January 15th 1947.  The details of our trip are in my scrapbook.  Having won the Championship for two years in succession and the trip to Britain, I decided not to compete again after the International Ploughing Match held at Kingston in 1947.


I have been the only person in Ontario to win the Jointer Plough Championship for two years in succession, who then went on to win the Tractor Plough Championship for two years in a row.


In 1948, the Wellington County Ploughmen’s Association elected me as their Director of the Ontario Ploughmen’s Association, where I served for seventeen years and was their President in 1960.


Being President of the Ontario Ploughmen’s Association was a challenge, as there were some major problems to contend with.  One such problem was that the large implement companies, plus some people in the Department of Agriculture, thought that the Ploughing Match should be held on a permanent site.  This was vetoed by the Directors.  Being Chairman of the Banquet and Convention, for up to 1200 people, was also a new experience.


In 1965, I resigned as a Director of the Ontario Ploughmen’s Association, to become the Chairman of the Wellington County Local Committee, as in 1968, they were hosting the International Ploughing Match.  This ploughing match was a great success and we made a large profit for the Local Committee.








Alex L. Black

Director of the Ontario Ploughmen’s Association 1948-1965.

President of the O.P.A. 1960.








Other than being on the judging staff for a few years, my active work in the ploughing matches came to an end.


I have found that all competitions have their disappointments and missed opportunities, but they also have their rewards and honours, and I have had them both.


During all of those years of activity, I have always received the support and encouragement of the citizens of Wellington County and of the City of Guelph.  The County Council presented me with a desk set after the 1968 International Ploughing Match.  The Local Committee of 1984 presented me with a plaque, in recognition of my years of service and leadership in the ploughing match organizations.  For all of this, I am grateful, and appreciate their thoughtfulness.  I must, of course, thank my family, who were always there to encourage me when I needed it most.


In 1991, the Wellington County Ploughmen’s Association asked me to research the history of ploughing matches in the county.  I spent many months on that project and was successful in tracing the history back to 1847, when it appears that the first ploughing matches were held in the county.  My reports have been printed in the County Prize Lists.


That brings me to the end of my ploughing match career.  The competitions were always a challenge, as every day there was a different set of problems to contend with.






As I travelled around the Province of Ontario, I had the opportunity to meet a lot of people that I otherwise would not have met, and some of them became good friends.


The trip to Britain in January 1947 was exciting and rewarding.  We travelled across the ocean on the Queen Elizabeth I.  Also on board was Barbara Ann Scott, Canadian Figure Skating Champion.  We were the first team of Canadian ploughmen to represent Canada at the England/Ireland matches.  Although we were disappointed in not being able to plough due to the unusually cold winter and heavy snow, we still had a very enjoyable trip.  At that time, very few people were travelling overseas.


Serving as a Director and President of the Ontario Ploughmen’s Association was an honour and a privilege.  That experience helped me a great deal when I was organizing the Local Committee in 1968.  Being Chairman of the event taught me the importance of good advanced planning and leadership.


There are many people who deserve my thanks for their kind words and encouragement, but most of all I give credit to my parents, for the opportunity and guidance that they gave me, and to my brother, Lennie, and to my sister, Elizabeth, who helped me in so many ways.







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